For three years now, we’ve made it a tradition to sing Christmas carols every evening of advent. Some nights we read Christmas stories, and sometimes we watch Christmas movies as well, but always Christmas carols. As a result my children have learned some of the Christmas carols they would not have heard otherwise. Knowledge of the carols is a gift I wanted to give my children.
People talk about putting Christ is Christmas, and in some ways, despite my religious questions, that’s what I want to do. I want to remind my children that this is a religious holiday. Yet who is this Christ and why does he matter? What does Christmas say about who he is? I want to write about some of the books and I’ve found helpful. Two of them I’ve already written about. Closer to the Real Christmas Story challenges the way in which we describe the Christmas story, and The Illegitimacy of Jesus argues that the early Christians never meant to say Jesus was born of a virgin. What I like about those books is that they are not just attempts to say “the normal interpetation of the story is wrong” but attempts to say, look, there’s incredible meaning in these other interpretations.
I think early Christianity posed a wonderful rejection of empire. The Emperor isn’t the son of God, Jesus, a peasant from Galilee is. Military might is not the sign of God’s strength; love and humility is. I love the song “Tomorrow Christ is Coming,” by Fred Kaan. The first and last verses go like this:
Tomorrow Christ is coming, as yesterday he came;
a child is born this moment, we do not know his name.
The world is full of darkness, a gain there is no room;
the symbols of existence are stable cross and tomb.
Our God becomes incarnate in every human birth.
Created in God’s image, we must make peace on earth.
God will fulfil Love’s purpose and this shall be the sign:
we shall find Christmas among us as woman, child or man.
So how do I capture the sense of excitement, faith, frusturation and wonder that I feel with regards to Christmas time? How do I share it with my children?
Then there’s the classic children’s novel The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. It’s an old classic I remember hearing in school when I was a child, about a church’s Christmas pageant being taken over by a family of troublemakers. It helps peel away some of the comfortableness of the Christmas story. A stable isn’t just a cozy warm place. It’s a crazy place to put a newborn. It’s a sign of being outcast. Jesus could have been killed by Harold, couldn’t he? He could have had colic or needed to be burped.
A Northern Nativity, by William Kurelek is a picture book exploring the Christmas story in various settings. The premise of the book, explained in the first two pages, is a twelve year old boy during the Great Depression, dreaming of the Christmas story and his history and geography lessons combined. After that introduction each page situations the nativity story in a different setting. Would cowboys on their way to a party invite the Christ family to join them into the bunkhouse or leave them in the feeding shed? Could a trucker driving through a mining town stop to help fix the Christ-family’s car? What if Jesus were born at a lumber camp? What if he were native, or black? The stories are set across Canada. From a ski lodge in the rocky mountains of B.C. to the grain elevators of Saskatchewan, the rocky fishing villages in the Maritimes, the settings are real. Notes in the back of the book help identify them.
Some of the stories have specific little messages or themes to them, others just hint at there being some deeper question beneath them. One tells of cars pulling off the highway to go to an old barn made into an antique store, to find something meaningful, while not noticing the Christ-family in the deserted barn next door. The contrast between antiques and Christianity made me smile; Christianity is a wonderful link to the past. In another story a hobo sleeping in the forest is contrasted with the sight of the parliament buildings across the river; the message in this one is about choosing to reject Christ in favor of Independence and I ponder it, knowing I will have to think again about the reasons (good and bad) that we choose to limit how much we let religion affect our lives. The book is too long, too disconnected for me to read it to the children in one sitting but in some ways that helps give time to reflect on the different ideas.
Poems of Christmas, edited by Myra Colhn Livingston includes many older poems, including excerpts from the works of Shakespeare, William Butler Yeats, Martin Luther, John Milton, Thomas Hardy and many, many others. It is organized according to the topics of the poems, some about the animals in the stable, the visitors who came to see Jesus, the plants associated with Christmas, etc. I like the mismatched collection because it helps bring out the different things that Christmas has meant throughout the years. Also, it is an easy way to introduce the kids to a few classic authors.